The Minsk conundrum: western policy and Russia’s war in Eastern Ukraine

This latest report from UK think tank Chatham House looks at the starkness of the Minsk conundrum.

The Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015, which sought to end Russia’s war in eastern Ukraine, rest on two irreconcilable interpretations of Ukraine’s sovereignty – what could be called the ‘Minsk conundrum’: is Ukraine sovereign, as Ukrainians insist, or should its sovereignty be limited, as Russia demands? Ukraine sees the agreements as instruments with which to re-establish its sovereignty in line with the following sequence: a ceasefire; a Russian withdrawal from eastern Ukraine; return of the Russia/Ukraine border to Ukrainian control; free and fair elections in the Donbas region; and a limited devolution of power to Russia’s proxy regimes, which would be reintegrated and resubordinated to the authorities in Kyiv. Ukraine would be able to make its own domestic and foreign policy choices. Russia sees the Minsk agreements as tools with which to break Ukraine’s sovereignty. Its interpretation reverses key elements in the sequence of actions: elections in occupied Donbas would take place before Ukraine had reclaimed control of the border; this would be followed by comprehensive autonomy for Russia’s proxy regimes, crippling the central authorities in Kyiv. Ukraine would be unable to govern itself effectively or orient itself towards the West. These contradictory provisions are testimony to a stunning failure of Russian foreign policy. In 2014 Russia launched a campaign of violent subversion to compel Ukraine to ‘federalize’ its political system. Belying Russian expectations, Ukrainians fought back en masse, forcing Russia to resort to increasingly open military intervention. Russia inflicted crushing defeats on Ukrainian forces, yet was unwilling to pay the price that further high-intensity war would have exacted. Western views on how to implement the Minsk agreements are imprecise and inconsistent. One prevalent view is that implementation means finding a mid-point between the Russian and Ukrainian positions. However, attempts to do so have failed – heaping pressure on Ukraine, risking political instability in Kyiv, and not leading to any discernible change in Russian policy. Instead of trying to resolve an unresolvable contradiction, Western policymakers should acknowledge the starkness of the Minsk conundrum. An alternative approach would make the defence of Ukraine’s sovereignty the unambiguous premise of Western policy. It would view the Minsk and Normandy processes mainly as conflict management tools. In line with the priority attached to upholding Ukraine’s sovereignty, Western governments would meanwhile maintain support for long-term political and economic reform in Ukraine, using the EU/Ukraine Association Agreement as the anchor. This approach would also encourage the authorities in Kyiv to engage more inclusively with those living in occupied Donbas. Yet it would proceed from the assumption that the region should not be legally reincorporated into Ukraine for the foreseeable future. Finally, this approach would logically entail a lengthy stand-off with Russia over Ukraine – a prospect that many decision-makers in the West would find troubling and unnerving.

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